The Hoboken Zoning Board of Adjustments, which normally consists of nine members and two alternates, has been missing five members for nearly 12 months, and will be missing more after several members’ terms expire at the end of December. However, City Council President Peter Cunningham, who effectively controls the appointment process, said that the board has still been meeting regularly and approving development projects.
Now, with only one meeting remaining this year, Cunningham has said the council will wait until at least January to discuss appointments. On Wednesday, Cunningham said appointments to the Zoning Board and other governing bodies will be a priority for 2014.
The council, which has been one member short since October of 2012, has been deadlocked along pro- and anti-Mayor Dawn Zimmer lines in many of its votes on appointments and other matters. Four members usually support the mayor’s policies and four are often opposed. In the new year, a new pro-Zimmer council member, James Doyle, will be seated, giving her and Cunningham a majority.
Meanwhile, applications from eight hopeful zoning board members have languished.
“You shouldn’t have to pick a side to serve this community.” – Patricia Waiters
The board approves developments that require “variances,” or adjustments to the city’s construction laws. The board holds significant sway over the future of development in Hoboken, with several major projects in the pipeline.
Opponents criticize the wait
On Wednesday, Cunningham acknowledged that he was waiting to have a council majority to begin making appointments to the board, but disagreed with some opponents who have said his strategy is obstructing the Zoning Board’s progress.
“The way I see it, the applicants that we would want to put up for consideration wouldn’t have passed [a council vote],” he said. “But projects are getting approved. The work of the board is getting done.”
On Wednesday evening, zoning board member Joseph Crimmins, whose term would have lasted through next year, announced that he will step down from the board after a Dec. 17 meeting, leaving yet another vacancy.
Other than the members with expiring terms – who may be allowed to continue on holdover status – only two members remain, Michael DeFusco and Elliot Greene. In July, Zimmer said a full board is a necessity for making fair judgments on proposed construction projects.
“Lots of applicants have rescinded their applications or are purposely delaying them because you need five people to grant a variance, but very often only five board members are at the meetings,” she said. “They’re afraid that they won’t have a fair shot at gathering the necessary votes.”
Still, Cunningham insisted on waiting.
“I’m not interested in compromising good policy and engaging in horse trading on the council just to put someone on the board that doesn’t agree with our vision,” he said.
Opponents of Zimmer and her soon-to-be council majority met Cunningham’s frankness with some frustration this week, saying that the decision not to put candidates up for a vote is hurting residents and business owners alike.
“I can’t speak as to why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I can tell you that this has made it harder for business owners to get necessary work done,” said 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, a member the council’s anti-Zimmer faction.
Phil Cohen, a Zimmer supporter and former zoning board member who turned in an application a year ago, expressed disappointment at a comment Mason made earlier in the evening criticizing Cunningham for waiting.
“I think it was a situation where people were obviously waiting to see what would happen with the Doyle litigation, and then November was drawing nearer,” he said, referencing Mason’s lawsuit that prevented Doyle from being seated on the council.
Other applicants who typically refrain from publicly supporting Zimmer or her opponents say that the delay is a result of typical Hoboken politics rather than the fault of a particular side.
Perennial candidate and local activist Patricia Waiters said the council has lost sight of its mandate to fill the zoning board with effective and fair members. Waiters has applied to serve on the zoning, planning, and Hoboken Housing Authority boards for many years, but has never been selected, possibly because she has refused to endorse whichever side held sway over the appointments.
“These boards are not supposed to be about politics,” she said. “There’s only been this delay because everyone on the council wants to get power and control, and with eight members, none of them can do that.”
Waiters said that she had seen the list of applicants to the board so far (the names are not public) and noticed that many of them were known in the political community for their outspoken views supporting one side or the other.
“It’s almost everyone that’s applied,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to pick a side to serve this community.”
On Wednesday, a member of the public spoke in favor of increasing the transparency of the appointment process by demanding more disclosure on the application process.
Franz Paetzold, a regular at the council meetings who often doesn't support one group over another, suggested that applicants should disclose, when they apply, their financial contributions to the campaigns of Hoboken elected officials. Currently, the application asks whether applicants might have any conflicts of interest that would preclude them from making fair judgments, but Paetzold said that was too vague.
“This could enhance the entire application process going forward,” he said. “If someone contributes money to a campaign, they should say so.”
Asked his thoughts on the idea, Cunningham said he supports the idea of demanding more disclosure from applicants. Still, he said that financial contributions to a political candidate should not necessarily work against one’s candidacy.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org